It is no accident that Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son opens with a bloody, fatal car wreck on a rainy two-lane highway under a spread of “Midwestern clouds like great grey brains. ” This incident from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” sets the stage and the tone for what follows: a series of head-on collisions that Johnson’s narrator—an on-the-run junkie—encounters over the course of eleven electrifying stories. Johnson hurls his readers on a shotgunned journey through emergency rooms and dope dens, detoxification wards and rest homes for those whose “impossible deformities…made God look like a senseless maniac. The world of Jesus’ Son is a place, a purgatory of sorts, where “the rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed. ” These are the kinds of moments around which Denis Johnson shapes stones that are destined not only to linger but to last, moments that once they are lived through (for to read this book is to live through it) will never—an never-be forgotten. In Jesus’ Son, Johnson breaks narrative rules and conventions with the candor of a strung-out junkie pawning off his mother’s jewelry box in order to cop a quick fix.
Standard trademarks of the genre, such as telling a straightforward story (with an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end), have been tossed aside in favor of a fractured, bullet-holed prose fabric that reflects a man’s disjointed hallucinatory memory. In “Two Men,” Johnson begins: “I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. ” The second man never even turns up in this story, although he does show his face in “The Other Man”: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one. Johnson’s narrator speaks about past events as they randomly reenter his memory. Re does not attempt to assemble the mishaps of his life in any kind of chronological order.
Re is casual about what he tells, as if he were speaking not about himself but about a stranger, someone he met one night at a bar. Johnson is not the first to write about the criminally drug- driven drifters who inhabit the darker corners of the world, in bars like the Vine, “a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere,” where Johnson’s isfits, “people [who] all seemed to have escaped from someplace,” converge in a shared sense of malaise, “telling lies to one another, far from God. ” Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and even Truman Capote have all written decent empathic books about those who live outside the margins of acceptable behavior. Johnson’s prose in Jesus’ Son, however, is so poetically charged with lines such as “I knew every raindrop by its name” and “When I coughed I saw fireflies” that it is difficult to dislike or to judge the acts of cruel indifference of his narrator.
Johnson himself resists condemnation or explanation of his characters’ ways. If Johnson’s Jesus’ son is a junkie, a thief, a man on the run, the reason is simple: He is, period. Johnson deliberately strips his stories of flashback, as if he were simply not interested in how or why a person becomes who or what he may be. Instead, these stories are sprinkled with gear-changing flash-forwards that propel the narrative into a present moment: the time frame from which the narrator is recalling his past-that is, his previous life.
In “Dirty Wedding,” a story in which the narrator gets his girlfriend pregnant and they opt for an abortion, he explains: A man in dark glasses shadowed Michelle right up the big steps to the door, chanting softly in her ear. I guess he was praying. What were the words of his prayer? I wouldn’t mind asking her that question. But it’s winter, the mountainS around me are tall and deep with snow, and I could never find her now. Since the publication of his debut novel Angels in 1983, extending up through Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), Johnson, in the words of one critic, “has been carrying on an edgy romance with Catholicism. This romance with religion- a battle between salvation and sacrifice-is the major conflict in Johnson’s work. At times, most flagrantly in his third novel, The Stars at Noon (1986), Johnson’s Christian impulses turn into moments of rhetorical dandruff. Yet in his best work, most notably Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the paradoxical notion of forgiveness in the face of the day-to-day apocalypse sits at the center of Johnson’s scarred imaginative landscape.
The world of Jesus’ Son is one in which the characters, especially the narrator, are nostalgic for a better life, a life with a deeper spiritual meaning, though they would not know how to go about finding a church, let alone what to do once they found one. They are Catholic “wannabes. ” In “Emergency,” perhaps the most unforgettable story in this collection-in any collection-Georgie, who works as an orderly in the emergency room of a hospital, is relaxing with the narrator after a long night spent mopping up blood and “saving lives”: “I want to go to church,” Georgie said. Let’s go to the country fair. ” “I’d like to worship. I would. ” “They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society,” I said. “I need a quiet chapel about now. ” A similar note is struck in “Dundun”: “It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time. ” Salvation is on the way, these stories seem to suggest. But it will come on its own terms, in its own sweet time. Until then, there is nothing to do but wait and go along for the ride. That is exactly the state in which Johnson introduces his narrator.
In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Jesus’ son is thumbing his way to a destination that has been left unknown. He is, geographically speaking, exactly in the middle of the United States, hitchhiking west outside Bethany, Missouri. When “a family from Marshall- town” picks him up out of the pouring rain, he confides to the reader: “I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm. Jesus’ son has been blessed (perhaps cursed) with powers of prescient sight. Later, in the same story, he again realizes the inevitable. Yet he is resigned to do nothing, since there is nothing he can do to stop the tragedy that is about to unfold. “You are the ones, I thought. And I piled my sleeping bag against the left-hand door and slept across it, not caring whether I lived or died. ” Re confesses that he simply does not care. He lacks the capacity, in this particular instance, to do what is right, to act out of some kind of moral obligation.
Consider the facts: His head has been stoked with hashish; he has eaten up a bottle of amphetamines while on the road with a traveling salesman; earlier he had the good fortune of riding in a “Cherokee filled with bourbon. ” His condition at the time of the accident, which “head- onned and killed forever a man driving west,” is not an excuse; it is, instead, simply the truth of one man’s life. Instead of encouraging judgment of his characters’ conduct, Johnson forces readers to feel aligned with them. The reader becomes intimates with Jesus’ son, becomes his closest kin.
One of Johnson’s greatest gifts is evident in his ability to seduce readers into believing that he-Jesus’ son-is actually one of them. At the very end of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” during a flash-forward some years later, after detoxification, the narrator, a man whose actions up to this point have been less than commendable, leans out as if across the threshold of the story itself and addresses the reader directly, thereby luring readers into his world: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you. ”
Such direct addresses resonate especially strongly when they are framed in the context of John Gardner’s public outcry in his On Moral Fiction (1978) that “true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it…[that it must manifest] a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation. ” It seems ludicrous, if not humanly impossible, for Johnson’s narrator (whose Christlike characteristics do exist as much as they do in, say William Faulkner’s Joe Christmas) to feel pressured by any other impulse than to tell the truth as he saw it, as he lived it.
Johnson does not glorify the fact that toward the end of his telling Jesus’ son has successfully lived through “Detox” and is “in a little better physical shape every day,” that he is a member of Narcotics Anonymous, that he is holding down a bonafide job. Instead, Johnson emphasizes how tenuous his narrator’s recovery really is, and how it will always be this way: as if he is walking on a tightrope between damnation and grace. As he peeks at a lonely Mennonite woman toweling off after a shower, he confesses, “I had thoughts of breaking hrough the glass and raping her…How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse. ” This is true: Johnson has shown just how low a man can go. Yet he has done so without sentimentalizing (as Jean Genet does with his pin-striped deviants) or excusing the sometimes violent tendencies he has explored in the eleven stories (or “Stations of the Cross,” as they have been called by James McManus in The New York Times Book Reviews) that make up Jesus’ Son.
In “Beverly Home,” though, the story that closes out this collection, the narrator appears at the beginning of his new life. Jesus’ son has come down from the cross, so to speak: he is back from the dead. Yet his faith in God is not nearly as potent or poignant as his devotion to the people-the deranged and grotesquely deformed inhabitants of Beverly Home, “an 0-shaped, turquoise-blue hospital for the aged”-he has been hired on to touch. “I walked against the tide…greeting everybody and grasping their hands or squeezing their shoulders, because they needed to be touched, and they didn’t get much of that. Johnson himself has “walked against the tide” of trends and tendencies in contemporary fiction. His five books of fiction and four collections of poetry (the third of which, The Incognito Lounge was a 1982 National Poetry Series selection) are as strangely diverse and darkly illuminating as any work written today. Those who pick up Jesus’ Son can expect to be touched. As Raymond Carver once wrote about the poems in The Incognito Lounge, the best stories in Jesus’ Son “bring us closer to ourselves and at the same time put us in touch with something larger. Few writers touch their readers so deeply
. Sources for Further Study The Atlantic. CCLXXI, June, 1993, p. 121. Commonweal. CXX, August 13, 1993, p. 23. Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 28, 1993, p. 3. The Nation. CCLVI, February 15, 1993, p. 208. The New York Times Rook Review. XCVII, December 27, 1992, p. 5. Newsweek. CXXI, February 8, 1993, p. 67. Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 28, 1992, p. 63. Studies in Short Fiction. XXX, Summer, 1993, p. 405. The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 21, 1993, p. 9. The Yale Review. LXXXI, July, 1993, p. 122.